Betty returns to the saga struggling with burdens of all sorts threatening her health and future in 'Tea Leaves'

By Jeff Jensen
Updated April 02, 2012 at 04:34 PM EDT
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S5 E2
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  • TV Show
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  • AMC

Summertime, and the living’s uneasy. Last season, Mad Men gave us an episode called “The Summer Man” that was set in late June of 1965 and saw Don Draper trying to get physically and emotionally healthy in the aftermath of a sobering shock: The death of Anna Draper, the real Don Draper’s widow, the woman that knew him (and accepted him) as Dick Whitman. That episode opened with the memorable moment of Don standing outside The New York Athletic Club, eyeballing the young folks strolling past him on the sidewalk, youth and the changing culture literally passing him by. The killer musical cue: “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” by The Rolling Stones. ”I’m trying to gain a modicum of control over the way I feel,” Don said in voiceover, reading from his journal. ”I want to wake up. I don’t want to be that man.” Last night’s Mad Men – entitled “Tea Leaves” and helmed by star Jon Hamm – was set a little more than one year later, in July of 1966. Once again, the Stones were rocking the country (they had just released a new album, Aftermath), and once again, we got a story about a character presented with the challenge — or, more positively, opportunity — of making fundamental changes as a result of some identity-shattering news. This time: The former Mrs. Don Draper, Betty Francis. During a trip to the doctor to score some diet pills, she learned that she had a tumor on her thyroid. Gulp. Like Don, we all want to have — or like to think we actually possess — a modicum of control over our lives, and nothing subverts that illusion/delusion like a brush with death. Such was the case with Mrs. Henry Francis, although Betty had lost her sense of self-mastery long before her scary trip to the doctor. “Tea Leaves” provided her with an invitation to explore the reasons why — and she didn’t take it. Oh, well. Maybe a journal would have helped.

When we last saw Betty, she was saying goodbye to the house she once shared with Don… and was trying to tempt her ex-husband into making a pass at her. “Things aren’t perfect,” she said then of her relationship with Henry. What was she looking for from Don in that moment? A second chance? Proof from The Man that she still had that sexy-young “it” factor? Is Betty even self-aware enough to know what she wanted? Whatever: She got nothing. Now, eight months later, Betty’s intensifying ennui had become tangible and measurable. She had gained weight, and she was ashamed. The former model could no longer squeeze into her designer wardrobe. She wanted to hide away inside her Dark Shadows manor like a misunderstood monster terrified of exposure. She did not want to be seen on the arm of her increasingly prominent husband, Henry, who now worked for John Lindsay, the newly elected Republican mayor of New York City. His campaign slogan: “He is fresh while everyone is tired.” Betty wished that could be her truth, too. She also didn’t want to work for it. And so, while she waited for her fairy godmother to arrive and wave away her pumpkin body with a flick of wand, Betty spent her days watching The Andy Griffith Show and binging on Bugles. When is everything going to get back to normal? CRUNCH. FUN FACT! According to Wikipedia, Bugles were introduced nationwide in the current Mad Men year of 1966. The advertising included the tagline: “Suddenly… Snacks are in great shape!” If only Betty could feel the same. If only we had a culture that could actually, like, help us carry the weight of living instead goosing us to pile more on. [Addendum about Henry: The indirect dig at Mitt Romney via his father, former Michigan governor George Romney, went right over my head. Too busy Googling snack food ads during that part, I guess.]

Well-meaning Henry tried to assure Betty that he still saw the same beautiful trophy wife that he stole away from Don, the living reminder of his own slowly dawning obsolescence soul that he married. Maybe not the best strategy; such sentiment risks sending the message “I don’t care.” Betty needed to feel like someone actually gave a damn about her. Beginning with herself. She needed a tough love kick in the keister… though ideally not as tough as the one provided by Henry’s loveless, unlovable mother, Pauline, a flubby tub of toxicity that would give Norman Bates the chills. She never thought much of her replacement in Henry’s queasy psychopathology Betty (“I know what you see in her and you could have gotten it without marrying”), and she was becoming even less impressed with every pound Betty put on. Pauline believed that a fat frump in a plus-sized kettle-shaped frock just wasn’t a flattering accessory for her rising star son. So she pushed an insta-thin solution: Diet pills. Otherwise known as “speed” back then. “At my age, I don’t have to please men anymore. But you…?” Pauline let the question dangle and haunt. And as much as Betty tried to push back with brittle defiance, the woman just ran her over. The perilous Pauline + Rolling Stones + Diet Pills = “Mother’s Little Helper,” a track from that aforementioned just-released Aftermath album, a song Jagger/Richards wrote about pill-popping desperate housewives. What a drag it is getting old.

NEXT: The Lump.

Betty’s physician blanched at hooking her up with quick-fix cures. She struck him as one more “middle aged woman” (ouch!) whose sudden weight gain could be attributed to “unhappiness and depression – things that cause us to lose our self-control.” Betty flirty-whined like the frozen-in-time emotional adolescent she’s always been. Please. Doc? Please? Don’t make me work for this. Don’t make me grow up and be an adult. Me want to be 16 going 15, not 16 going on 17! Not without an examination, he said. Touch, touch – bump. The doctor’s face drooped. That’s not good. And so the lump was found. Betty wheeled home. Henry wasn’t there – so she called Don. Later, Megan would say: “She just needed something to call you about” – and you know, she might have been half right about that. She unbundled her burden, and Don was — surprisingly? – genuinely moved. I loved how he still called her “Bets.” She asked, “Say what you always say.” Don, with some small reluctance: “Everything’s going to be okay.” In their marriage, the line was a lie. Oh, that it would now be true…

At first, the lump made Betty feel more ugly than ever. She made Henry look away as she got out of the bath, despite his you-gotta-be-kidding-me protestations. Over tea with an old friend named Joyce that she encountered at the clinic, Betty fretted her death. Her biggest fear? The prospect of Don and Megan taking charge of her three children and poisoning their memory of her. “They’ll never hear a nice word about me again.” Selfish, yes. But January Jones played the pain that Betty lacks the courage, self-awareness and language to express, and I felt it. A pseudo-gypsy fortune-teller approached the tea drinkers and offered to scry the dregs in Betty’s cup. “You’re a great soul. You mean so much to the people around you. You’re a rock.” Betty broke into tears. The gypsy beat was ironic-funny moment on multiple levels, including the one where Mad Men was clearly winking at Betty-haters who’ve come to view the character as not so great, as increasingly irrelevant to the show, as an element that needs to be dislodged and tossed. I don’t happen to be one of them, though there was a cynical part of me that watched this episode wondering if Mad Men was trying to force us into a more sympathetic regard for Betty by sticking her with both weight and disease. Oh, me of little faith.

For one brief moment, it seemed like Betty had made a healthy turn. She got into bed and told Henry that she wanted to make love. “It’s been too long,” she told him. Yet following their intimacy, there came the nightmare. Betty entered her kitchen and saw her children sitting at the table with Henry and Henry’s mother. Everyone looked mournful. Flies swarmed. Henry: “If… If… If…” Then Sally stood up and retired Betty’s chair. The dream seemed less to me about death than an expression of Betty’s dead-on-the-inside life. Severe judgment. The drip drip drip of regret. Surrender. To paraphrase from Don’s journal and apply to Betty: I want to wake up. I don’t want to be that woman.

The tumor was benign. Yay… right? Surely, on some felt level, Betty must have been relieved. But what was more palpable was… disappointment? There was certainly anger. She barked at Henry: “It’s nice to be put through the wringer and find out I’m just fat.” Oh, Betty! You were put through the wringer to learn that you need to take control of your life. FAIL. “Benign” instantly dispelled the dumb gloomy fantasy that had fired in her mind like her kids’ Independence Day sparklers: “Benign” meant that she had lost the ability to re-cast herself as a sympathetic victim of cruel circumstances and crueler people. Finally! Everybody would have to love Betty! The kind of spiritual liberation she needs will require a more willful, forceful revolution. Until then: Bugles and sundaes. Will she also begin seeking comfort from smaller, stronger stuff?

It was nice that Don phoned to check on Betty’s condition, wasn’t it? And wasn’t it just petty of Henry to withhold the fact that Don had called from Betty? “Nobody,” Henry yelled back when Betty asked who had called. Right after this moment, I turned to my wife to ask: “Do you think Don and Betty are going to get back together?” She cut me off before I even finished the question: “NO.” As in: They better not!

One final thought about Betty’s weight gain. I can’t shake Pauline’s line: “At my age, I don’t have to please men anymore. But you…?” Betty has spent much of her life chasing after men for affection and affirmation, from her father to Don to Henry. I don’t want to make the desire for those things to be some kind of character flaw. But in the same way Dick Whitman invented the alluring guise of Don Draper as the means to get what he wanted from people, including love, Betty has lived life playing the role of “Betty” to get that love, too. It seems to me that both Don and Betty are just plain tired of acting those parts, tired of being phony to chase authenticity. I slammed Betty for not taking control of her life. But from a different perspective, I wonder: Is gaining weight Betty’s way of blowing up the unfulfilling “Betty” she’s always trying to be? Is this her way of revolting against her must-be-pleasing-to-men orientation? Is this her counter-culture protest? I’m not saying she’s aware she’s doing this, if she is doing this. Betty = oblivious. Also? Not exactly the healthiest way to change your life. But hopefully for Betty, it’s some kind of start.

NEXT: The Trade Winds Blow.

When Will Don Draper Get Back To Being An A—hole? “Tea Leaves” saw more of the kinder, more patient Don Draper that Peggy worried over last week. The news of Betty’s possible cancer bugged him in just the right ways. He was concerned for her, concerned for their kids. Yeah, there was that moment when he seemed to ooze ex-wife agita when he asked Megan if Betty had called, without explaining to Megan why she might. Yet to his great credit, Don effectively apologized during a subsequent sit-down with Megan, when he tried to tell her why he was feeling too low to go to Fire Island to hang with her friends. It’s so hard to zoo bisou bisou when you’re feeling blue.

Still, Don’s wariness of Megan’s groovy-cool pals is clearly becoming a source of marital tension, and we were again given to wonder if and when and how their simmering culture clash will boil over. The episode might have been giving us a metaphor for this idea in the form of that phone call with Megan’s French-speaking mother. Translation: Will Don be able to learn and speak his young wife’s cultural language? The question was framed in a different, very entertaining way during an ill-fated mission to get The Rolling Stones to write and record a tune for Heinz Baked Beans. Heinz CEO Raymond Geiger had the idea. He envisioned a riff on “Time Is On My Side” that went “Heinz, Heinz, Heinz… is on my side.” Harry saw an opportunity to put the offer before the band’s manager: The Stones were playing Forest Hills Tennis Stadium in Queens on July 2. Don didn’t think it was an entirely stupid idea. After all, the band had jingled for Rice Krispies three years earlier. While Don and Harry waited on the Stones in the bowels of Forest Hills, they met two teenage girls — groupies — who initially suspected Don of being a cop. Nope: Just 40. Harry connected with one of them – after all, he liked to think of himself as a member of their “demo” – and soon he was smoking grass and getting yanked into the band’s backstage sanctum. Don was left alone with the other girl, a nameless bird sweet on Brian Jones, the Stones’ guitarist and soon-to-be cautionary tale: One month after getting tossed from the group in the summer ’69 for drug abuse, Jones drowned in a swimming pool. “He’s a troubadour,” the wannabe Lady Jane mooned. When Don sized her up as a romantic, the teenager likened him to a psychiatrist. “How do you know about psychiatrists?” Don responded, reminding us that psychotherapy had some stigma to it in the mid-sixties, and certainly not something happy-go-lucky kids would and should ever need. “None of you want us to have any fun,” she moaned. Don, now sounding exactly like a cop, albeit a kindly one: “No. We’re worried about you.” It was easy to roll our eyes at control freak Don’s squaresville-sounding fuddy-duddyness, especially in an episode that continued exploring the themes of the premiere re: relevancy, significance, aging, obsolescence. But then Mick and Keith and Brian and the boys hit the tunnel, and the girl lost her mind and her emotions and screamed away from him to chase after her Lady Jane destiny. It was hard not sympathize with the fear and trembling of the father of a soon-to-be teenage girl.

I loved the comic coda to this subplot. Harry emerged from the dressing room, thinking he had secured the Stones for Heinz. Nope. He had been duped by the manager of the opening act, The Trade Winds. Afterward, Harry made Don drive him to White Castle (yes?) so he could assuage his humiliation (and tame the munchies) with a sack of sliders. Better than a bag of Bugles? Debate.

NEXT: For the record, not all writers smell like pee. Just ones that stay up late writing recaps.

Did Peggy Just Hire Her Replacement? Meanwhile, back at the office: More profound change, more silver-haired fear. As a result of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce’s utterly accidental embrace of the new equal opportunity ethos in last week’s premiere, Don got a new secretary, a strikingly competent young African American woman named… Dawn. (Did anyone find this joke to be even half as funny as Harry did?) This “progressive” hire provided an opportunity for more regressive humor from Roger Sterling. Does a whole season of ugh-ly “It’s Always Darkest Before The Dawn” quips lie ahead of us?

Of course, Mad Men made him pay for it.

Mohawk Airlines had agreed to return to the fold – as long as good old boy Roger handled the business. And for a few days, Pete allowed Roger to feel he still had some relevancy. In that time, Roger had to fulfill the other condition of Mohawk’s return: The agency needed a dedicated copywriter with retail experience, high-impact creativity, and the motor to churn out the weekly volume of work that Mohawk required. Another required: He had to be male, per Mohawk. Roger and Don tasked Peggy with the search. She blanched at servicing Mohawk’s chauvinism, but she relished the responsibility, and took it as an affirmation of her merit… until impish Stan started putting thoughts in her head about the implications. Namely: Whomever she hired may one day come gunning for her job and one day become her boss. Stan encouraged Peggy to protect herself by recruiting some weak sauce if not an outright lemon. Peggy wasn’t wired for doing anything less than her very best. Yet her first encounter with Michael Ginsberg went all kinds of wrong for both of them. Everything about this very loud young New Yawker was… well, loud, from his plaid jacket to his brash self-confidence, which, of course, masked much nervous insecurity and a degree of poignant desperation. He lived in a tiny apartment with his father; he needed the job. Peggy dragged her feet on facilitating a second Michael, this time with Don, and only did so after Roger pressured her. He told her to resist worrying about being displaced. She was young; she had many more hires to go before she hired that one last guy that would one day become her superior. Besides: Ginsberg was Jewish. See? Diversity!

Nonetheless, Peggy hoped Michael would bomb his audition, more out of fear that his outré personality would reflect badly on her judgment than anything else. She was counting on self-sabotage; all Michael had to do was open his mouth and be himself. And he was… except what came out of his mouth was everything Don Draper wanted to hear. That he was cool. That he was a role model. That he represented everything this young buck wanted to be: A great writer, full of passion and integrity and principles. Don had authored The Letter — the daring kiss-off to Big Tobacco after the Lucky Strike dumping. He was – to Michael’s eyes – a certifiable counter-culture hero, a Madison Avenue-style rock n’ roll troubadour. Did Michael mean it? Dazzled Don wasn’t all that interested in finding out. He shook Michael’s hand – and then told Peggy to hire him.

In the end, the joke was on Roger. During an all-agency meeting, Pete sandbagged the senior partner by announcing Mohawk’s return, and more, taking credit for it, and worse, making a big show of assigning Roger the role of managing the account. In short: Pete made it clear that he was effectively Roger’s boss now, even if he didn’t have the title. Roger: Visibly winded from the sucker-punch. John Slattery: Cruising to yet another Emmy nomination. “That’s the last guy I hired,” Roger said to Peggy as he huffed away. Behind closed doors, Roger fumed with Don and put a fine point on his season’s arc: “I’m tired, Don. Tired of having to prove that I have any value around here.” Don nearly succeeded in popping and bleeding Roger’s swollen, jaundiced ego by reminding him that their problems didn’t amount to a hill of Heinz beans in a heaving, seething, cancer-filled world. “Life and death,” Roger mused after Don told him about Betty’s lump. We were left to wonder if Roger had been assuaged. “When is everything going to get back to normal?” he asked on his way out the door. And perhaps at that moment, somewhere not far away, an equally clueless and unhappy housewife who could certainly relate to Roger’s angst turned on The Andy Griffith Show and popped a Bugle in her mouth in solidarity.

Twitter: @EWDocJensen

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Mad Men

Jon Hamm stars as Don Draper in the Emmy-winning ’60s-set drama
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